Is the UK higher education’s cup half full, half empty, or about to be running on empty?

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Which one best represents your view of UK HE now, and in a year from now?

My overall premonition around coming back to work in this New Year is not positive. I feel quite anxious, a real sense of imminent dread. On a personal level, it looks to be an enormously exciting year, with a long yearned-for change of job – as well as a new research project – in the coming months. Both of these represent great steps forward for me, and I’ll be writing about both in time. So what is it that’s making me so nervous? In short, it’s where UK higher education might find itself at the end of 2019. In some ways the year ahead looks like the perfect storm, an unfavourable planetary alignment of several major events, any one of which would wreak significant damage on the sector. Somehow, by accident or by design, they all appear to be coming to a head this year.

National Debt

There has been a major review of university and other post-18 education funding, the findings and recommendations of which are due out this year. Given the state of the economy, and the Conservative government’s continuing insistence on a politics of austerity, they can only be looking to save money. This comes right after recent changes in the way that student debt is calculated in our national finances, no longer counting as an asset in terms of loans that are repaid, but the recognition that a good portion of them aren’t. In short, they’re a partial debit, not an overall credit. The rumours seem to point to the fact that the review – led by Philip Augur – does not augur well. (Pun intended.)

Student Debt

A fall in fees might look like good news in terms of access to university, as it saddles students with less debt and thereby reduces, to some, a disincentive to study. Sort of, yes, but a proportion of the currently high fees has gone into supporting less affluent students through their studies. A drop in fees only works there if the shortfall in money coming from students (through government loans) is made up by the state in the shape of grants. This is unlikely, unless that shortfall is given in exchange for more of a say in what kinds courses (particularly sciences) are provided, and by whom (particularly high status universities), because they offer better ‘value for money’. Don’t get me started on ‘VfM’…

University Debt

While the drop in fees is probably bad for all universities, it may be cataclysmic for some. Newer universities (which are better at serving disadvantaged students) tend to have their eggs in one basket – students, rather than research – so they are very exposed by reductions in fees. A number of others also appear to be tottering on the verge of insolvency, having borrowed heavily to build extensive new facilities. These institutions are looking to save money by divesting themselves of staff, putting a freeze on promotion, and/or increasing student numbers. This will likely not end well for their staff, or students. This all comes along at a time when students numbers are down anyway, in part due to the fact that the volume of school leavers is shrinking due to a period of lower birth rates just after the turn of the millennium.

Pay and Pensions

In addition to the fees issues, there are ongoing disputes around pay and pensions. As in most parts of the economy, pay in universities is not rising at the same rate as inflation, so salaries in practice are actually falling. This could lead to industrial action since the universities have not been keen to award pay raises, and must be less keen to do so now. There will almost certainly be strikes against changes to pensions. This started last year, and early fears of skulduggery by the USS pension fund managers seem to have been well-founded. They had initially stated that the fund was in a bad way, and the only solutions were greater contributions from universities and staff, as well as significant reductions to the final pensions staff would receive. University managers seem to have bought into this, but further investigations revealed that the pessimistic predictions had been exaggerated. The USS, though, does not seem to be retreating from its position. This impending battle deals already flagging morale a significant blow, and bearing up under the weight will require enormous levels of forbearance and solidarity.

Brexshit

If you add these issues – fees, student numbers, shaky balance sheets, pay, and pensions – to the disaster that is Brexit, there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel of 2019. Our economy is in bad shape, social inequality is rising, and all of this looks to get worse if we leave the EU by isolating ourselves from the social diversity and exchange that our participation in the EU incorporates. For universities, they become even less able to attract students and staff – and research funding – from EU countries, and perhaps from overseas more generally as we appear less attractive. UK universities may be about to become even more insular and underfunded, at a time when they can least afford to be, either culturally or financially.

Predictions for 2019

What is the best possible prognosis here?

  1. The government cuts fees but grants extra money – with few strings attached – to help universities better attract and support disadvantaged students;
  2. Universities agree to raise pay beyond the paltry 1% currently on the table, an offer which has already been rejected by the unions;
  3. Somehow those universities most at risk sort out their finances without damaging their research or teaching;
  4. The USS pension acknowledges the mistakes made in its initial valuation, accepts that it is not in such bad shape after all, and minimal changes are made to ongoing pension contributions and the eventual pensions themselves;
  5. Brexit is reversed, or at least proceeds with the softest option, and we are able to retain access to EU/other international staff, students, and moolah.

I actually can’t see any of these things happening, and it’s heart-breaking, particularly for someone who – perhaps somewhat unrealistically, given the evidence of problems in HE – really buys into the idea of what we do as a collegial, forward-thinking endeavour. It feels like we’re on the edge of a really major fall. 2019 may turn out to be a positive year for me personally, but it looks likely to be an annus horribilis for us as a collective.

 

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A University Carol

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Stave One

Professor Ben Ceerzee-Gooser was working late, as usual, poring over the data of his latest set of graphene experiments. He was alone in the lab, having (generously, he thought) given his latest post-doc, Barb Cottich, the afternoon off to attend the end of year faculty bash. He was slightly in shock since his long-term research partner, Professor Marco Jabley, had suddenly handed in his resignation that afternoon, leaving his university chair with immediate effect. They had recently completed an award-winning project which looked to bring the commercial production of graphene – using copper disks in pressurised ovens – much closer.

Marco’s resignation was not entirely out of the blue. They’d recently Skyped – Marco worked at the University of  Bologna – and he knew that he’d been unhappy for some time. He professed to be falling out of love with higher education, seeing it as overly driven by one-upmanship through achieving ‘impact’ – whatever that was – and income – more tangible – rather than scientific progress. He was probably on to something, Ben, mused, but working in graphene meant you could tick both of those boxes and still do fun work, albeit at a frenetic pace to stay ahead of the competition. He knew that a team at CSIRO in Sydney were hot on their heels, and there was no time to lose.  

He was about to return to his studies when there was a knock at the door. It was Barb, asking if he wanted to join them at the end of term Christmas party. ‘No, no thanks, things to do’, he replied. She nodded, and left. That kind of thing was not his bag. He resented his colleagues’ jealousy at his success, and the way they were always asking about his work. He was convinced they just wanted to ride on this coat tails, and that would never do. They’d no doubt hold him back, and his success was down to his own graft – it was unfair to be piggy-backed by others. They should stand on their own two feet.  

Stave Two

He glimpsed across his desk at one of few photographs on it. It showed a group of mostly young scientists, squinting at the camera in bright sunlight. It had been taken 30 years ago at a conference in Valetta. The figure in the centre was his erstwhile mentor, Fig WIzze, and the group around him included the entire research group, fifteen people. Ben was at the back, on the right, shyly holding hands with young woman. Belle. Had she been ‘the one’, the one that got away?

Ben had been an awkward Physics undergraduate, slow to make friends, but he had excelled on the course, and had then been taken under Fig’s wing as he moved into postgraduate study. Fig was one of those (rare?) people in universities who were immensely successful and universally loved by both peers and junior colleagues. He had been warm-hearted, the life and soul of the party, and incredibly generous and inclusive in his approach to research. Genuine tears had been shed by many when he retired.

Belle had been in the same cohort, and after a time they’d fallen in love. It had all fallen apart when, returning to the lab one evening, Ben had found her leafing through his lab books. He’d immediately taken umbrage and accused her of spying. She had protested, said that she knew he’s been stuck on something, and was wondering if there was some way she could help. Ben had refused, furiously snatching the book away from her, called her out as a traitor. The relationship was obviously irrecoverable from that point on. She was a professor now, too, and they occasionally saw each other at conferences. He’d been drunk one evening at an event in Berlin a few years ago, and had suggested that they could – should – have stayed together. She’d told him to fuck off and get a grip, that he was far too selfish and focused on his own work to operate in a functioning relationship. He’d been affronted at the time, but in hindsight, she may have been right, as testified by his two failed marriages. Such is the price of academic success, he mused.

Stave Three

Ben decided to call it a day, he somehow wasn’t in the mood any more. He closed down his computer, put his notes in the safe, locked it and checked it twice, switched off the lights and then locked the door, again checking twice to make sure it was fast. He could hear the party still going in the atrium, and he paused in the shadow of a pillar on the walkway, watching his colleagues down below. They were having a good time, and he could see the head of department was already dancing. She was always the first, and her enthusiasm was contagious, bringing others. There was always something incongruous about academics on a dance floor, he’d always thought.

He saw his post-doc, Barb, laughing with some of the other junior staff, clearly enjoying letting off steam. She was on her second 18-month contract with him. She was very good, but was thinking of leaving for a permanent position; she said she and her partner – who was finishing her doctorate – couldn’t buy a house or support their growing family on recurrent contracts. He had enough long-term funding to offer her an open-ended contract, but in his experience those on permanent jobs lost their hunger. He hadn’t, but he’d seen it elsewhere. It was in the interests of the project (and a bit cheaper, of course) to have precarious staff, and he’d easily pick someone else up if Barb left. There was certainly no shortage of applicants every time he put an ad out on jobs.ac.uk.

Stave Four

He crept down the back stairs and through the fire exit to avoid his colleagues and their festivities. His ground floor flat was a short walk from the office, and he let himself in, made tea, and then sat on the sofa in the dark. He looked out over the garden, the street light shining across it. Closing his eyes and he reflected on the day: the usual administrative drudgery of the departmental meeting first thing, Marco’s resignation, and then the party in the atrium. There was something detached about it all, something unreal, as if he was a spectator in his own day. Dwelling on that thought for a few moments, he suddenly felt the familiar lurch of dipping into sleep, and kicked his leg out as a reflex reaction.

He was transported to a faculty event, not quite in black and white, but certainly not full colour. He floated through the main entrance door, past a sign he couldn’t quite read. There were the usual people there, the customary warm white wine, crisps, Battenburg cakes, sausage rolls, and so on. One of his colleagues, from Astrophysics, who’d made it onto TV and become a bit of a celebrity, got onto a table with a microphone, tapping it a few times. He called ‘order, order’, which got a few laughs, and then started to speak when the room died down.

“Ladies, gentlemen, we’re here to mark the passing of a fellow staff member, someone who was taken from us suddenly last week. I imagine you’re in the same place as me, still trying to process the sad news. There is no doubting that he was a research star, and has made a major contribution to both the university, making significant advances in his field over the last thirty years or so. Some people might have found him hard to work with at times, I know I did, but that’s part of who he was, and perhaps that was necessary for him to achieve such academic success. However, I’m sure we’re in no doubt as to his  academic brilliance, studded with the gems where his particular taciturn humour shone through from time to time. Let’s focus on those. Colleagues, let’s raise a glass to the late Professor Ben Ceerzee-Gooser.”

Ben recoiled. What? What was he doing here? He looked, panicked, around the room, scanning the faces. People were solemn, but there were no tears. He was no Fig Wizze, but he’d have expected more emotion. He moved towards a group of senior staff, people he’d worked with for over a decade, some much longer. He picked up a fragment of conversation. “Yes, well”, the head of department was saying, “in a way it’s a shame, but it’s clear that Ben’s best work dies with him. Since Barb has left for that job at Cranfield, we can’t decipher what he was up to. Not that she had full access anyway, it’s mostly locked away in external hard drives. The published papers and lab books tell us something, but we can’t access the meat of the data. It would take someone years to work out how to replicate those results, and the Australians will have overtaken us by then. We’ll have to see what we can salvage from the EPSRC, but at the end of the day, we might just have to move on.” There were nods, awkward glances as people looked into their wine glasses for something to add. Ben wanted to say something, but the words wouldn’t come…

Stave Five

He woke up, noting drily – or, rather, wetly – that he’d dribbled on his tie in his sleep. He wiped the corner of his mouth and took a moment to get his bearings. He was still there, on his sofa. It was dark, and his tea was luke warm. He’d not been asleep for long, then. He took a deep breath and stood up, feeling slightly sick, somehow bereft. No, this simply wouldn’t do. HE opened his laptop and booked a classroom in the usual faculty seminar slot on the next Wednesday afternoon, inviting all staff in the faculty. In the invitation, he wrote:

‘Dear Colleagues.

I would like to invite you all to an open session on my current graphene project. I have been struggling with a few issues, and was hoping for some feedback on ways to address it. There will also hopefully be some avenues for shared projects or other collaborations. I will, after the session, be opening my data folders to colleagues, at least where funder embargoes allow.

I hope to see many of you there.

Very best wishes,

Ben.’

He pressed send.

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The Hero at the Helm

 

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The new international students’ accommodation was due to be a real money spinner. (Artist’s Impression)

Describing the VC’s state of mind as incandescently apoplectic would have been an understatement. He stalked back through the door of his wood-panelled office, pushed it quietly closed, then shut his eyes and clenched his fists before silently screaming “FUCKERS!! FUCK!! NNNNGH” across the empty room. He kicked the wicker bin hard, watching it arc over his conference table, shedding balls of paper like a stream of contrail. “BOLLOCKS!”

Taking a deep breath, he tore his eyes away from the temptations of the drinks cabinet – it wasn’t even mid-morning – and went to stand at the bay window which served as his crow’s nest. For a few minutes he stood quietly, observing the cranes lowering girders into place over the growing university accommodation. There was something mesmerising in their slow moves, and he felt the tension easing off a little as he followed their choreography. The accommodation was an arm of the master plan to raise money any which way, in this case through the marginal gains of carving off slices of profit on every edge of the international student experience. Luxury flats for internationals, they were going to be too expensive for domestic students, even the most well-heeled ones. If the projections were correct, though, they would yield a very handsome profit as long as they could keep recruiting over a quarter of their students from outside the EU. The capital outlay was eye-watering but you had to spend it to make it, and he was determined to hold his nerve.

Only £50K

The morning’s events would take some time to settle, and he’d no doubt be tasting the bile for the next twelve months. The problem was that the annual review panel had only given him a £50K pay raise for the coming year, and he was convinced they’d enjoyed doing it, too. He’d missed out on a £200K hike by a THE World University Ranking overall score of 1.2. That was the difference between where they were and squeaking into the top 100, the institutional target he’d agreed with the Senate two years ago. Jesus wept! The metrics were absurd, but you couldn’t run an organisation with thousands of staff without reducing it to numbers, and it did make sense if you didn’t think about it too deeply. The tail had wagged the dog for years now, there was no point denying it. If the Chinese weren’t pumping out research papers at such a frightening rate (how did they do it?), they’d have made the top 100 for sure. There was an irony in that they depended on Chinese students so much, financially, but at the same time many of them would return to Chinese universities and be putting those skills to use to undermine the global position of UK HE.

It helped enormously that the university had a good reputation. Being in the Russell Group, which was an accident of history in itself, represented an overgenerous helping of organisational capital. Reputation counted for a lot, particularly on the THE and QS rankings. If you started off ‘high up’, you could actually be pretty awful for over a decade and it had little to no effect on people’s perceptions. Bizarre, and entirely unmerited in methodological terms, but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. It must be infuriating for the plate glass VCs, doing so much good work but never being able to catch up with the civics, who had a sixty-year head start. Oxbridge were a separate species entirely. They’d spent so long closing ranks and screwing over everyone else that it had become part of their organisational DNA. He suspected that it was now so institutionalised there that that they didn’t even notice it any more.

Turning the Supertanker

In hindsight, he’d done all he could since he’d taken charge three years ago. He’d been  wrestling heroically at the helm from the off, and the supertanker was finally starting to turn. When he’d had arrived, his muscular strategic plan at the ready, the university was sluggish. A lot of the senior staff were starting to dodder a bit, in his view. They were still producing four star papers, but they’d lost their interest in generating income, or at least couldn’t do so rapidly. Slow scholarship was a thing of the past, it was now about fast and faster. He’d started off making a few subtle tweaks to the promotion system, including the option for demotion if research income wasn’t forthcoming. This had separated the wheat from the chaff pretty quickly; a good third of the professoriate had left and he’d been able to recruit younger, proven money-magnets at a fraction of the cost.

Youth was the answer to a lot of his problems, actually. The overproduction of doctoral students was a real boon in that helped with REF environment returns and simultaneously provided an endless flow of PhD holders who had to take up short-term teaching contracts. The university had very limited responsibility for them, only employing them for nine months of the year and piled them high with marking and very little prep time. This did wonders for the staff-student ratio, which again helped on the rankings. This state of affairs wasn’t in the long-term interests of the sector, but that wasn’t his problem, which was the here and now, or at least the here and next-five-years. Young staff were  getting cheaper and cheaper in both real and pension terms, although the resistance to changes in the USS had surprised him and the other VCs. They’d get there eventually, though, they had to –  they were too much in debt across the sector to be able to afford to back down now.

Full Optimisation

His own university was probably a few years away from full optimisation. A handful of departments, particularly Music and Philosophy, had proven resistant to rationalisation, and they would probably have to go. The profit margins from tuition were decent enough, but there was no money in those subjects in research terms. Grants rarely came on an FEC basis and they were therefore a luxury the university could ill-afford, like widening participation. He’d been trimming that team over the past two years, and the figures on working class intakes weren’t great, but they were good enough. You had to be seen to be trying, and while student diversity and social justice made the headlines, it didn’t feature on league tables, that’s what mattered. Thankfully you could point most of the blame elsewhere, in that government-enhanced social inequality lay at the root of that conundrum. University leadership was not for the faint-hearted, and you had to make ‘difficult decisions’, and that’s why he commanded the salary he did.

He’d read that morning, though, that Steve Smith, VC at Exeter, had pocketed a £400K bonus, effectively doubling his salary. Bugger. The next time they bumped into each other at the Athenaeum, he’d struggle to look him in the eye. What an unbearable thought. He might even have to change clubs. Heads would have to roll.

 

 

 

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University People…

Universities are places filled with real people. Let’s meet some of them…

The Vice Chancellor

The Emeritus Professor

The Über-successful Scientist (aka ‘A University Carol’)

The University Data Manager

The Misanthropic Doctoral Student

 

(This is a work in progress, more are to come.)

Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates, Rankings, Teaching in HE | Leave a comment

The Misanthropic Doctoral Student

Prezzo

Yawn – yet another mediocre recycling of old hat?

Aubrey was, as usual, sitting by himself at the back of the room,  paying less than half attention. He was pretending to write notes on the presentation but was actually drafting the outline of an incisive new paper on Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s enduring sexual magnetism. At the front, a post-doc from Warwick was earnestly and enthusiastically sharing their recent work on social class and the Temperance Movement. It might have been interesting if it had been related to Aubrey’s own work. As it was, it wasn’t, on either count. He was only there because absences in faculty seminars were frowned upon. It was ‘uncollegial’, supposedly. Still, attendance and engagement weren’t the same thing, not that many people understood that.

He washed down the lingering aftertaste of a slightly stale custard cream with a sip of his now tepid, and typically bad, coffee. Cradling his thickly bearded chin in his left hand, he looked thoughtfully out of the window, hoping that it appeared as if he was thinking about the presentation. He could see the 1960s brutalist – and now listed – university car park, steadily being dwarfed by the greater architectural atrocity of the new, multi-million pound, tinfoil-clad Nanoscience facility. Beyond that was a copse, and then miles and miles of brick terraces, crouching like half-visible toads in the afternoon smog. He briefly thought of ‘the masses’, closeted together in their badly-decorated little boxes, leading dull, pointless lives of cerebral drudgery and petty concerns, before moving up a level of abstraction.

Aubrey had suspected from a young age that most of humankind was pretty stupid. He was now convinced of it. Some of this sense had come from his mother, a science teacher at a comprehensive school who gleefully regaled him with stories of pupils who struggled to understand even the basics of GCSE Physics. The evidence, though, outweighed the anecdotal, it was all around him, and certainly wasn’t limited to the world outside universities. Most of his undergraduate peers at Exeter had waffled and fluked their way through their degrees before going off to take up vacuous PR jobs in the city. They had been, and were still, oblivious to what was plain to him and probably to his fellow Übermenschen: they had no idea what they were doing. They were only successful by dint of going to the ‘right’ schools and having relatives who got them into interviews at corporate head offices.

Coming back to earth, Aubrey noticed that the presentation was coming to a close. The post-doc had clearly been given the ‘Two Minute’ sign, and was rushing through their conclusions. It was pedestrian stuff, really. He could see that, yes, there was a gap in the literature, and yes, it was combined with some fairly new literary theory, and yes, it drew noteworthy parallels with current advertising campaigns by the drinks industry. La-di-dah. To be honest, though, in terms of conceptual depth, it was probably comparable to what Aubrey was achieving in his Master’s essays two years earlier.

The question now was this: could he be bothered to ask a question? Aubrey had two approaches to discussion time at the end of presentations. His first, and default position, was to say nothing, particularly as most presentations merited little more than barely veiled disdain. This was as much the case for senior faculty as they were essentially recycling the same ideas they’d built their careers on twenty years earlier. The second strategy, when he was feeling vindictive, was to drive a stake through the heart of their argument, killing it dead. This was best preceded by the lengthy exposition of something medieval and obscure, and preferably only available in Italian or German. You had to be careful how you phrased it, particularly when the presenters were influential. The trick was to hide the poison in the Trojan Horse of a pensive question, pretending that you weren’t quite sure of the answer, when in fact you were.

He knew he had a reputation for taking down guest speakers, and that this didn’t make him popular. Whatever, academia wasn’t a popularity contest. It was important to keep the firewalls of career progression high otherwise standards would slip even further. In his view, bar the odd exception, hardly any research in his field at the moment was original in any way, and people needed to be made aware of that. Imposter syndrome wasn’t just something that people bleated about on Twitter, patting each other on the back to make themselves feel better about their own mediocrity – it was a systemic problem. The academic ranks were stacked to the gunnels with imposters, and the mechanisms in the system to root them out weren’t really working. Now was as good a time as any to switch them on, he thought. As the speaker came to a close and the applause petered out, he made a quick scribble into his Pukka notepad – Bocaccio’s Teseida, 1340. He then raised his hand, observing as he did so that several of his colleagues looked down at their desks. Idiots, the lot of them.

 

 

Posted in Early Career Academia, PhDs/Doctorates | 1 Comment

The Myth of the (HE) Market and ‘Survival of the Fittest’

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This is from the ‘original’ (Warning: Paywall!)

This article first appeared in Research Professional, but in a paywalled section; they’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce it here. 

The higher education market

Universities, in the UK, and globally, operate in a market. They compete with other higher education institutions – and other training and career pathways – over students, funding, and staff, all of which are only available in finite amounts. In short, it’s a dogfight over limited resources, a race to the top where only the fittest survive. If you’re not fit enough – i.e. of good quality and therefore chosen as a research/study/work destination – you’re extinct.

A unique situation

In many ways, though, higher education is not a market. There is some competition, but research and teaching are founded on collegiality and collaboration. Commercial organisations don’t share information or know-how with their competitors to improve what they do or produce.

Furthermore, social scientists have long shown that individuals’ choices are not always well-informed or rational. At one level, you can’t know what the precise outcomes of a degree or research project are in advance, even if there is some probability of particular learning outcomes and potential employment, or findings.

If you also factor in that the markers of quality that we see in TEF or league tables are largely proxies, the idea that people are consciously and strategically choosing the best option falls even further apart.

Finally, league tables give a misleading impression of a single higher education space. Some universities do recruit staff and students, as well as research funding, internationally, while others are more local.

This means that competition, where it does exist, operates on different scales and with a relatively small number of rivals. League tables change relatively little over time, too, so the notion that the ‘top and bottom’ are pitted against each other is clearly nonsense.

Much of this is old hat, but it sets the scene for less frequently considered questions around the concept of the market and how it might function – or not – in higher education.

Survival of the fittest?

The logic of markets is taken from the Darwin’s model of evolution, in that competition and adaptation – continually raising standards and efficiency – are required to survive and thrive. However, markets are not natural in the same way as biological ecosystems; they require two fundamental, man-made conditions to exist: a capacity in players to compete, and an arena in which they do it.

In terms of the first, universities need to have the ability to adapt, and this may not come naturally. Universities historically have been similar to state departments, without a strategic leadership function – or marketing teams, for that matter. To suddenly expect them to be agile, proficient in private sector ‘combat styles’, is unrealistic since it is not within their cultural DNA.

Also, an arena is identified by its conditions for winning and losing. In sport this is the first over the line, or the most points when the final whistle blows. For universities the standards are the ever-present but entirely nebulous notions of reputation and excellence, both of which are inherited and tautologically connected with those dubious metrics.

This means that some players start way ahead, and gaming the system – optimising performance in relation to measured criteria rather than actual quality – can mean that some may look fit on the outside but are actually wheezing and panting behind the scenes.

Three drivers for change

In theory, competition drives up standards as everyone ups their game to catch up, keep up, or stay ahead, but does this play out in practice? Organisational studies have shown that there are three other key drivers for change, none of which are necessarily connected to actual gains in efficiency or effectiveness.

Firstly, organisations have to align themselves within formal environments of rules and regulations. Universities of course are no stranger to this, being surrounded by national legislation from health and safety and employment rights, to higher-education-specific frameworks around degree awarding powers, admissions systems, tuition fee arrangements, and so on.

They have to align with funders, too, as research sponsors have strict eligibility and application criteria, along with procedures for disseminating and reporting on research. Observers of policy know that its creation, implementation, and outcomes rarely follow a model of evidence-based, uniform application, and unbridled success, so there is no guarantee that formal rules represent best practice.

Secondly, organisations imitate each other, modelling themselves on other players in their sector, usually those that are seen to be successful. When faced with a new problem, it makes sense to look at how others are doing it. However, unless we have precise details of how their ‘solution’ works, we may in fact be copying a practice which creates more problems than it solves.

This imitation may in part be driven by a desire to improve credibility. This aids status but maybe not execution. Universities have similar ceremonies or formal attire, and in the past designed impressive, gothic buildings – often with a tower. Nowadays we see more recent trends such as proliferating university crests and other material which highlight (or exaggerate) the length of institutional histories. The emulation of ancient universities is evident in all of this.

Thirdly, any sector to some extent governs itself though informal practices associated with particular professions. These range from jargon to organisational structures (like faculties and departments) or procedures (like the PhD viva), and may be specific to disciplines.

They tend to be embedded and unconsciously accepted, which makes them resistant to change. Some, such as plagiarism, have long-standing principles which are widely accepted and (by and large) followed. Others, though, may hamper change, such as the intransigence of economics, which has struggled to adapt to critiques around the inability of orthodox economic theory to predict or explain recent financial crises.

So higher education is a market in some ways but not in others, and this means that there are interesting tensions between collaboration and competition. Furthermore, the supposed alchemy of markets as facilitating choice and continuous improvement is largely mythical. Organisations – and the people within them – are not only oriented towards efficiency and effectiveness, if at all.

 

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Fear of Being Left Behind – the Post-92 Blues?

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On average, I spend a week a month doing research. But can you spot any peaks and troughs?!

Another academic year draws to a close, and as September approaches, the cycle of personal and academic renewal and ageing (!) begins afresh. I’m struck by a few things, one of which is that the summer always feels like – in advance, at least – a delightfully long period of time off and space to focus on research, but which in practice is incredibly fleeting. Master’s students aside, administrative and other work related to teaching only really finishes at graduation in mid-July, and then you have six weeks to recharge, reconnect, and try to catch up with that research project that should have been completed months (well, a year) ago. Come September, email lights up again with calls for teaching materials, course handbooks, room bookings, and then the gates are opened and the delightful hordes descend again.

My overarching feeling, though, is one of uneasiness, with myself and where this is all going. Some of this might be signs of a minor mid-life crisis, but mostly it relates to the way that academia functions, at least in my head. There is no serious existential worry here – I’m not inclined to buy a motorbike – and I’m mostly happy with my lot. I still love what I do, in that I love teaching and research equally, I love talking to others about their work and mine, I love the feeling that you’re developing as much as your students are, and I feel that that higher education is, despite its many faults, A Good Thing. There is, though, a shadow in the background, which is a sense that I’m being left behind.

Where does this come from? It comes from a perception that my peers at other universities are progressing far faster than me, at least in research terms. More projects, more publications, more personal development in terms of having time to think, read, and write. I’m not standing still, by any stretch of the imagination. I have a new, really fun book chapter which has been accepted bar minor revisions, a research project with fascinating results that are emerging at the moment, and I got promoted. I have my first research bid being submitted in ten days, too. But I had to fight desperately hard to make time for research, and it impacts my teaching. I try hard to teach well, but the classroom hours I have (which are still less than some colleagues), along with other roles and admin, mean that I can’t dedicate as much time to teaching and its preparation as I’d like. If I really gave it my all, I’d be doing no research at all.

Now at one level, I’m developing a lot of experience in the classroom, as well as contributing to the functioning of the university. One of the real benefits of being at a small university is that, even as a relatively junior member of staff, I can play an active role in university life – making differences to the way the place works – more than perhaps I could elsewhere. This is great experience: it’s academic citizenship, something interesting and genuinely useful, but equally, it feels like it’s sort of wasted time, from some perspectives, anyway. I’ve applied for a few jobs at more research-oriented universities, and had a few interviews. I’m not desperate to leave my current post by any stretch, but I’m left with sense that while my profile around the non-research side of things doesn’t count against me, my relative lack of progress in research does. All that teaching experience, course management, and running a research group is fine, but I don’t have grants, a book, and I’m not thinking in ‘Russell Group’ terms.

So, it’s a Catch-22. In order to be able to have the space and support for more research, I need to be doing more research, but I don’t have the time to do it, at least not at the pace I feel I should be. Now I know I’m caught in a game of my own making. Who says that I should strive towards being at a ‘top’ university, where their student intakes are socially exclusive? There’s also some evidence that the focus on being a good teacher may be – according to dodgy evaluations, anecdotal evidence and my own confirmation bias – less important there than funding and publications. Top universities are, in some ways, not the most socially progressive places to work, but they still seem to be the places that we (at least I) strive to be at. I’ll have more senior colleagues around me, research development support, and help to be part of bigger, more complex projects. At present, I have very supportive colleagues, but we’re all in the same place, career-wise.

Such is the sociology of academic life. Aspirations which are unrealistic, wanting to work at places that, on the whole, dominate the rest of the system and enjoy privileges that they are often unaware of. They’re the upper middle class of the university world, both metaphorically and socially. I’m caught in a trap that I know is partly of my own creation/perception, and from the outside I know it’s bullshit. But I feel drawn to it nonetheless, partly driven by the fact that, in the few spaces I get to really drop everything for a concerted period to think, to develop intellectually, I grow so much more – but others are doing it much faster. Jealousy is a destructive emotion and I hate competition, but I feel the pull of both.

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Reputation management and the anonymous monsters of Higher Education

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Golden Universities

I absolutely love higher education, in principle. I really buy into the idea of it: that you have a group of people of unquenchable curiosity, whose job it is to work together to dig into the social and physical world and share their knowledge with students, their colleagues, and the public. It revolves around thinking about and understanding the world as well as we can, from social morals to the zinging of invisible particles, from open heart surgery to what love means, and anything and everything in between. The possibilities are, literally, infinite. Universities preserve and analyse historical and contemporary culture, do work that saves human and non-human lives, provide what can be an enormously fulfilling life for scores of employees, and offer students the opportunity to develop their minds and access different kinds of jobs.

Turdular Universities

On the flipside, in practice, there is a fair amount in universities to dislike. They’re not necessarily guilty of all of the things they’re always accused of, but they are not necessarily shining visions of wondrousness, either. They magnify social inequality by channelling affluent, white, male, able-bodied students higher into the job market than people who don’t fit into those categories. They’re often exclusive in several ways, being ageist, sexist, racist, snobbish, familyist, and so on; a lot of the knowledge they create is also not accessible to the outside world and there can be brutal competition between researchers. They can be incredibly toxic places to study and work.

Some of this toxicity is down to how universities are governed through numbers, and this works from the outside as well as the inside. Externally, various kinds of measurements on university rankings and other ‘assessment exercises’ can be helpful in some ways but are also problematic – I’ve written about this a fair bit. When it comes to internal management, if you’re employing scores of staff and teaching thousands of students, there must be some kind of organisational system otherwise there’d be chaos. But if the system is overly prescriptive, based on misleading numbers, and driven by always increasing improving the machine’s performance, then the components (i.e. staff and students) will suffer. You can’t permanently keep your foot on the floor, expecting the car to go faster and faster – you’ll either run out of road or the engine will lunch itself. There is increasing and justified concern this is what is happening, and staff and students are in the firing line.

I’m not Spartacus. No, me neither.

Pretty much all of the problems are known about and the evidence is out there. There is  piles and piles of research in and around universities that shows that, why, and often how, significant problems exist and are maintained or even made worse. It’s also important to note that we can back up the golden sides of the argument, too; if that wasn’t the case, there’d be less people working there, but as it is, a lot of people become disillusioned and leave. Whether the glass is half empty or half full depends to some extent on who you are, where you’re working or studying, and where you are in your career. But if the problems in higher education are so well-documented, and genuinely systematic, then why are things not really getting any better? One part of this is because we often can’t identify (or can’t say) exactly who’s behaving badly.

When you do academic research with people, it’s standard practice for those people to be anonymous. There are exceptions, but they’re rare. It’s an underlying principle of research ethics that the people who take part in studies aren’t made to feel uncomfortable, and can’t be identified by anyone else. This anonymity means that people feel less wary of taking part in your study and are more likely to talk to you, and talk honestly – they’re not going to be so open if they know their boss or colleague is reading the transcript. We’re not looking to name and shame people, it’s more about seeing how people see and experience the world, what kinds of issues are out there, and hopefully how we can address them. If someone admits to seriously breaking the law or of there’s a case of people being in danger, then you’re duty-bound to pass that on, and you make that clear at the outset. However, tied in with this, is that universities (at least in places like the the UK) often don’t allow you to undertake research within them unless you make it organisationally anonymous, and this is because Reputation is King.

Cherry-pickers

Universities, particularly as they are forced to compete with each other, are hyper-aware of how they look to the outside world. League tables are part of this, and universities are driven towards constantly improving their performance according to these metrics – that’s their point. There’s even a reputation ranking, which is about as akin to a dog chasing its own tale as you can get. Whenever a ranking’s annual results comes out, senior leadership and marketing teams scroll through to cherry-pick and publicise the bits they like. On the occasions when they’re not doing well, the default position it is to ignore it (or say that the ranking methodology is flawed if it makes the news). They don’t bitch about them when they come out top, though. Public image is seen as essential – if a university looks good, people will want to work for them, they’ll get more research funding, and students will want to study there. Some are more bullet-proof to scandal than others: if students Harvard and Yale were miserable, it wouldn’t matter so much to their recruitment because people know that they get major kudos for having those places’ degrees on their CVs. Other universities don’t have that ‘luxury’ and so have to tread very carefully.

The upshot of this is that universities seem to be terrified of bad news, and when these things do transpire, the PR exercises swing into action, or they try to sweep it under the carpet. National statistics give you some of the story on spending, vice chancellor salaries, or inequalities in the student and staff populations. Headlines on Oxbridge admissions make headlines every year, for example. The default response is that they’re working hard to open up, and it’s not their fault that the education system is unfair. Sort of true, but it’s a dodge, a very partial answer to the question. And then you have other things that happen under the radar and never see the light of day. Imagine that a senior member of staff, a professor or member of the leadership team, is caught in the act of impropriety with their literal or financial pants down. The ‘best’ thing for the university to do would be to deal with the whole thing quietly, which they could potentially do unless the police were involved and the story was leaked. If it’s kept hush-hush, then that person could go on to work somewhere else. Hearsay within the sector can come too late: ‘oh no, you’re not working with them…didn’t you know? Everyone else does.’ Whistleblowing can be a great way of losing your job, and unequal power relations ensure that calling out the monsters is ‘disincentivised’, and this allows people to get away with it, and maybe do it again.

Problems and Solution

So there are two problems here. The first is that running a large organisation of any kind leads to reducing issues and people to numbers in some way, and if you start to see those things simply as numbers, then it can mask the real issues and effects of optimising performance. The second problem is that there is always a shit somewhere in the system, but it can be very difficult to call him out. (Yes, it’s almost certainly a him.) When you combine these two within a fundamental principle of preserving organisational reputations – rather than social and mental health – then the human outcomes can’t be good. If anything, the answer is to develop a real culture of accountability, not so much around productivity, but around more rounded, fair, and considered outcomes. That counts as much for the anonymous organisational monsters as much as the individual ones.

 

 

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A ‘real’ example of Grade Inflation

 

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As with every year, it seems, the newspapers are filled with stories about ‘grade inflation’ at universities. The accusation is that we’re are wantonly generous in our grading, in part because the percentage of students who get an upper second or higher – i.e. a B or A grade – is included some university rankings. National figures do indeed show that many universities are awarding more in these two categories, year on year. The issue is deemed important enough to be built into the national Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) that assesses universities’ teaching processes (not teaching!). This is to discourage us from gaming the system by simply awarding better grades to raise our ranking positions.

A Case in Point?

Let’s have a look at an example of what might be seen as grade inflation. ‘I’ve got a friend’ who took over a final year undergraduate dissertation course a few years ago. The students are studying off campus at an FE college, are generally mature (in their mid-20s to early 40s) and ethnically diverse, and have relatively weak academic credentials on paper; as such they often have low confidence in their own intellects. Most of them work full time and/or have family commitments, but they’re completing a degree full-time, mostly over evenings and weekends. This group is an exception in the system, since when tuition fees went up in 2012, mature students more or less vanished from UK higher education. Statistically, this kind of student is more likely to drop out of their degrees or just about creak through. On the course in question, students were getting an average of around 55% for their research projects year on year.

My friend was in a position to reshape the course because the time allocated to teaching it had been changed, and this meant that much of the teaching content had to be adapted or substantially changed anyway. The sessions were made more like workshops, based around discussions and practical exercises that related to doing the research and addressing the potential issues that could arise around ethics, participant recruitment, and so on. The reading lists were bumped up and other additional materials were added, too.

All Firsts Aren’t Equal

Around the same time, the external examiner on the course pointed out that there were few marks in previous cohorts over 70, the bottom mark for a first (an A). (All UK courses have an external examiner, an academic from another university, who reviews the course every year as a critical friend.) This tendency to award low 70s may partly have lain in the fact that most of the staff went through university when grades were less important. Fifteen to twenty years ago, a first was a first was a first, and where you pitched it was sort of irrelevant as grades mattered less on the labour market, and simply having a degree was sufficient to get access to graduate jobs. A more recent phenomenon is that students seem to need an upper second or higher to be considered for just about anything. In practice, there is variation in really good work, so why not reward it appropriately? Fair point.

Self-Marking

In addition to writing new materials, expanding the course resources, and actively encouraging students to engage with their supervisors, an exercise was introduced whereby students were required to assess a previous research project which had done  well. It wasn’t a perfect piece of work, but it was well-executed and very clearly written up. Research shows that marking work can help students in a number of ways, and it actually made quite a difference.

  • Firstly, it demystified the nature of what a good research report looks like. This is particularly important for final year projects: at 8,000 words, the dissertation is by far the largest piece of work they’ll have done, and it’s therefore pretty daunting for many. You can explain how it works and provide examples of projects for them to flick through, but actually requiring them to read one in depth really brought those explanations to life;
  • Secondly, it made students look very closely at the marking criteria. Those for the research project are slightly different to the usual assignments, with additional sections around the literature review, research design, analysis, and so on. This encouraged them to think about – and apply – the differences between the different grade bands, giving a clearer idea of how work was judged;
  • Finally, there is evidence that shows that some students can lack the ability to critically review their own work. We as academics have to learn how to do it – if we don’t, it reduces our chances of publishing journal articles and books – you have to pre-empt where reviewers might pull you up. Marking another project therefore helped the students make real connections between the marking criteria and their own work.

This, along with providing a final checklist of what supervisors were looking for when they assessed the final reports, explicitly let students know how they could do well. Not all of them picked these things up, and many of them only picked up parts, but the students did report finding this enormously helpful. Bearing in mind the advice of the external examiner, staff also awarded grades in the 80s and sometimes 90s if the work deserved it, and a sample was cross-marked to ensure that standards were equally applied (this is standard practice). At the end of the year, the overall average was up in the mid to high 60s, and has stayed there ever since.

So, this grade inflation?

Now this is where the grade inflation issue comes to life. The final year research project is the most important piece of work because it requires students to put into practice what they’ve been learning over the course of their degrees. In credit terms, the grade also carries a lot of weight which means that it has major implications for the final degree classification. In other words, doing well on your research project can do wonders for your overall grade, and this was evident for quite a few students, as the cohorts subsequently did better than in previous years.

Through improving the teaching, more focused guidance, and fairer grading, students were given more of an opportunity to do really well and be suitably rewarded, and they did, in the main. From the outside, lazy assumptions (and the Teaching Excellence Framework) would identify what looked like grade inflation, when what was happening was that academics were doing their jobs better. Why is the default position of the media and policy makers in the face of rising grades that standards are being relaxed, when in fact what we may be seeing is the opposite?

 

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How to (better) solve inequalities in university access.

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Keble College, Oxford. Why are some social groups permanently frozen out of ‘elite’ universities?

No surprises…

A recent study has ranked universities based on how well their student bodies represent the UK population as a whole. The results essentially turn other university league tables on their heads, as they tend to be weighted towards research, retention, employability, and, crucially, entry standards. This new approach offers a different perspective of ‘best’ by framing it around social justice, at least in terms of admitting people from across the social spectrum; post-degree outcomes are a different matter. The usual ‘elite’ suspects nearly all languish at the bottom, while the so-called ‘weaker’ universities have come out smelling of roses. In a way there are no real surprises here, and the findings essentially reflect what many people have known/suspected for some time, it’s just that nobody has crunched and presented the data in this particular way before. Universities like Cambridge, Bristol, and so on, are the most academically ‘choosy’, which means that they are coincidentally, accidentally – or perhaps even intentionally – socially selective in that they admit very few people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This issue has been observed and discussed for over 50 years now: those from better educated and wealthier families will do better at school, go to more highly ranked universities, and this means that they go on to get better jobs, even though there’s no evidence that they’re actually better workers. In short, if you’re white, male, middle class, straight, and not disabled, then you’ll probably be more successful and paid more than someone who isn’t all – or any – of those things. Notice that I’ve not mentioned ‘ability’ or ‘talent’ in any of this. We’re encouraged to buy into the idea of innate talent far too quickly, that the best simply do better. It’s not to say that successful people haven’t worked hard – most of them will have done – but it’s important to accept that luck also plays a major role. I’m a beneficiary of this ‘arrangement’, too… Some people are born with more of a head start than others, and are therefore much closer to the finish line when the starting gun goes off. There are exceptions, but we must remember that exceptions don’t prove that the system is fair – for every Oprah Winfrey, there are a lot of Donald Trumps, and those Oprahs will have had to work far harder than the Donalds.

What’s the Answer? Quotas!

I’m increasingly convinced that the best solution is to introduce quotas, otherwise known as ‘positive discrimination’. What this means is that universities set particular figures for admissions to ensure that their student intake reflects wider society, rather than expecting wider society to do equally well at school. This is simply not going to happen. People shy away quotas for several reasons, even those who are more likely to benefit from them. Let’s look at why they’re unpopular.

  • ‘Social Engineering’

Moves to equalise pay rates or participation levels across social groups are often met with the accusation that we’re engaging in ‘social engineering’. The implication here is that we’re undermining the natural state of things. That is, that in the jungle it’s survival of the fittest, and if you mess with this, the ecosystem falls apart: organisations won’t do as well if they have to put underqualified people into posts rather than those who have the best credentials. This looks like common sense, but in fact it falls apart quite quickly based on two fundamental observations.

Firstly, the system as it stands is not natural, it’s social: it’s a man-made situation (literally, as in largely created by and for males) and those in the lead want to stay there. Saying that their advantages are simply the result of evolution is a way of pretending that they’re brighter than they probably are! The same argument goes for markets – the idea that markets or elections (and referendums!) simply reflect the average will of the people is nonsense. They are created by people, with legislation, and there’s a great deal of horse play, manipulation, and misinformation in advertising and politics that goes on before and after they are set up. This means that we’re rarely choosing exactly what we want because we aren’t perfectly informed and what we’d like to have probably isn’t available. Systems are made by people, for people, and the outcomes are never even.

Secondly, the natural evolution argument rests on the assumption that there aren’t (and never will be) enough qualified people from other social groups. This is fundamental racism, sexism, and snobbery. There may currently be less Black, working class women with Oxbridge degrees, City internships, and MBAs, but there aren’t none. Crucially, the reason for their present minority status is a long-term lack of genuine opportunities (not a lack of ability or aspiration); people outside the dominant groups in any industry (or subject area) are implicitly and explicitly discouraged from following certain career paths. You could argue that qualified people from minorities are likely to be better than their white, middle class, male counterparts because they’ve almost certainly had to work harder – and be better – to get as far. This evolutionary claim is the same false principle that underpins ability streaming in schools or the claims of ‘dumbing down’ in universities. Educational tests are not accurate measures of actual potential – you can’t take society out of any test – but they’re a system we’re stuck with for now. This means that we need to work around them.

In general terms, every single policy – educational or otherwise – that affects social groups in different ways creates or maintains an artificial situation. Policies which preserve the (unequal) status quo are maintaining those unnatural advantages, and this is therefore a form of social engineering in itself. The same goes for things that we don’t have policies on – it’s a choice not to try and change something. Let’s accept that social engineering is part and parcel of policy, and where it makes society fairer, it’s a good thing!

  • Charity Cases

When I taught on this topic a few months ago, I was surprised to see how many of my students were resistant to the idea that they might be given a leg up – a place on a course, or a job – over someone with similar credentials from a more advantaged social group. This could, for example, take the form of admitting someone from a poorer neighbourhood, with less educated and less affluent parents, who has slightly weaker grades, rather than someone else with marginally better grades but from a wealthier, more educated background. This is known in the US as positive discrimination, and in the UK as contextual admissions. It’s quite common practice, as it happens, but seems to be weakly applied in the UK, at least by the ‘top’ universities. I’ll get to this in a minute.

In principle, my students accepted (and railed vehemently against) the well-evidenced state of affairs in the UK (and globally) around education, crime, health, and so on, that sees the odds very much stacked against certain social groups. They can see that a lot of policy is inherently racist, sexist, ableist, and classist, as the outcomes disfavour certain kinds of people. They unanimously agreed that we needed to make major changes to national-level social policies such as abolishing ability streaming in classrooms, more generous funding for schools, healthcare and the justice system, less constricting and punitive social benefits, redistributive taxation, and so on. But when these things were applied at the individual rather than the system level, they baulked. They said they wouldn’t want to be labelled as a ‘charity case’, as having not earned their place. They wanted to be admitted on merit, even though they know that, if they’re from a working class background, their chances of achieving equal merit on paper are potentially far lower than for their more affluent peers.

This, I think, is evidence of ‘cognitive dissonance’, where people hold simultaneous views which conflict. We all suffer from this to varying degrees, and it stems from the fact that the same logic isn’t applied to every situation in society. We absorb a great deal of information and arguments around topics as we go along, through the media, conversations, reading, doing research, and often don’t notice when arguments or approaches contradict each other. So much of our ‘natural’ thinking revolves around the idea that talent leads directly to success that we’ve internalised it, even though there is overwhelming evidence to blow it out of the water. In a way we need to more strongly promote the view that the (white, male, middle class) people who dominate commerce, the professions, and public life, aren’t there on merit alone. If anything, they’re the charity cases as they’ve been given the nod ahead of people who are just as likely to be as good as them. If this underpinned our thinking more, then we might see positive discrimination, well, more positively.

Can Universities Solve the Problem?

Now we’re coming back to where we started. Governments ‘educationalise’ social inequality and other societal issues (like religious extremism and illegal immigration) by tasking schools and universities with solving it. This is passing the buck: as my students articulated, and as politicians are well aware, education alone can’t solve all social ills. We do see these inequalities playing out very clearly in education; in some cases education is making things worse. It can have a positive impact, too. But what can universities do? Before tuition fees were introduced, most people were awarded state grants, and these were retained for poorer students as fees came in. They’ve mostly been removed now, but if universities want to charge full fees (and they all do), then they have to have an ‘Access Agreement’. These have been around for over a decade (see here), and require that universities have a system in place for supporting poorer students and encouraging more to attend. This can involve scholarships or fee waivers, outreach work into poorer neighbourhoods, residential weekends for potential students, contextual admissions, and so on, but exactly what they do is up to the individual university. They have to be seen to be doing something, and showing that they’re making progress. So why, in spite of this work, are the numbers on equal participation still so poor?

One part is related to the education system itself, this lower likelihood of people from less advantaged backgrounds getting the necessary grades. The horse can’t get to the water, and universities can’t fix the pre-university education system as it stands. But they can bring the water to the horse. Many are already reducing the grade requirements for less affluent applicants but this (and their other approaches) aren’t having enough of an effect, as the figures show. This is probably because, even by setting disadvantaged applicants marginally lower entrance requirements, they’re still setting the bar too high. The outreach and so on will help, but in themselves they can’t take the society out of education – there’s evidence that people from certain backgrounds feel discouraged from applying to ‘posh’ universities. The universities, then, have to go further – keeping up the work they’re doing, but also establishing quotas, with a strong statement about why and how this is right. It’s about social engineering in the right way, and acknowledging that our so-called meritocracy needs a reboot. If you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors, giving a helping hand to people who deserve a leg up is simply the morally right thing to do.

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